English Studies Site

The God of Small Things


by Arundhati Roy

With its concern with social and political Indian history and its chronologically disturbed narrative structure, the isse of Time is a fundamental one to the novel. On this page, students have focused on the ways in which this issue is explored by Roy in the novel. Some have narrowed their scope to particular aspects of time, while others have examined particular passages in the text.

The Untouchables’ Perspective
Imagery of Caste in The God of Small Things
The Untouchable School
Baby Kochamma at the Kottayam Police Station
Velutha
The English Language as a Caste/Class Issue
Moral Assumptions About Caste
Ingrained Issues of Caste

The Untouchables’ Perspective
Josh Allport

The issue of caste and how it affects the Untouchables is particularly apparent in the differing attitudes shown towards it of Velutha and his father, Vellya Paapen. Velutha, who is obviously very constrained by his position – 'if only he hadn't been a Paravan, he might have become an engineer,’– does not openly reject his position per se, but it is clear from lines like ‘the quiet way in which he disregarded suggestions without appearing to rebel,’ that he does not view caste so rigidly as his father.

The ceaseless way Mammachi enforces the caste rules ‘with her impenetrable Touchable logic’ is mirrored by Vellya Paapen’s similarly obsessional abidance. His gratitude to Mammachi, for example, is described almost absurdly as ‘wide and deep as a river in spate.’ These words occur in the same sentence as ‘He had seen the Crawling Backwards Days’, showing how deeply ingrained these rules are. Vellya Paapen still shows complete respect now, despite having lived through the indignities of the past and to a lesser extent the present. His ‘Old World Paravan’ status means he becomes torn between ‘Loyalty and Love’ and actually offers ‘to kill his son’ when he admits to Velutha’s and Ammu’s relationship.

Any of Vellya Paapen’s personal suffering of being and behaving as an Untouchable is never shown; instead it is the suffering of him not behaving as one that we read – the painful image of him offering ‘his mortgaged eye’ to Mammachi is a notably preposterous yet sad example of this.
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Imagery of Caste in The God of Small Things
Sam Okoronkwo

When Velutha has the affair with Ammu, he breaks an ancient taboo and incurs the wrath of Ammu's family and the Kerala police. He breaks the rigid social rules of the caste system and therefore, the authorities must punish him.

In the novel, there is subtle but significant imagery as to how the caste system is perceived in India. In chapter 8, when Sophie Mol arrives, Rahel argues about living in Africa with Kochu Maria, who states that ‘Africa’s full of ugly black people and mosquitoes.’ The way Arundhati Roy presents this sentence shows how the darker the skin colour, the less respectfully a person is regarded. Rahel’s reaction seems strange at first, as she ‘walked across to the old well where there were usually some ants to kill.’ The fact that these ants were red and ‘had a farty smell when they were squashed’ could represent the darker skinned population of India and the Africans. The imagery continues, as the darker ants ‘had to be killed before they got there. Squished and squashed with a stone. You can’t have smelly ants in a church.’

Roy’s language leads the reader to believe that since it is just ants being killed, it is of little significance. However, if they are perceived as the lower caste members of the system, then the way they are ‘squished and squashed’ seems much more disturbing. But why does Rahel do this when we are aware of her love for an Untouchable like Velutha? The Indian caste system was so important that maybe it was just instinct to kill the red ants.
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The Untouchable School
Chris Georgiades

“He walked past the village school that his great-grandfather built for Untouchable children.”
This quotation shows how the Touchable superiority over the Untouchables still exists in Ayemenem. The two groups have separate schools and this indicates how most people still follow their ancestors’ beliefs and do not allow their children to socialise with the Untouchables.

However the fact that it was his “great-grandfather” who formed the school for “Untouchable children” shows how there have been people in this family who have previously broken the laws of the caste system. The opinion that these rules may be broken again can thus be formed as the same blood flows in the rest of the family.
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Baby Kochamma at the Kottayam Police Station
Daniel Grimwood

The clearest caste-driven action in The God of Small Things comes when Baby Kochamma goes to the Kottayam Police Station to reveal Velutha’s ‘crime’. It comes as quite a shock to the reader, who has become used to Baby’s civility when dealing with Velutha. For example, she understands Mammachi’s decision to put him in charge of ‘general maintenance’ at Paradise Pickles and Preserves because of his skills.

However, on hearing from Vellya Paapen that Velutha has slept with Ammu, all of her caste prejudices and hatred are unleashed. Arundhati Roy tells the reader that Baby misrepresents the relationship between Ammu and Velutha, not for Ammu’s sake, but to contain the scandal and ‘salvage the family reputation in Inspector Thomas Matthew’s eyes’. ‘Scandal’ suggests a severity that the reader knows is not there – Ammu and Velutha share genuine feelings of affection for each other. The fact that she feels she has to ‘salvage the family reputation’ shows her feelings of shame and portrays the importance of reputation in India.

She also refers to Velutha’s ‘complete lack of remorse’, when the reader knows that Velutha has nothing to be remorseful for. Her exaggerations and manipulation make her seem sly and cruel and further highlight the importance of caste to the characters in the novel.

Although it seems like a selfish act of self-preservation, it could be argued that her actions are a thoughtful gesture on behalf of the family. Yes, it is harsh on Ammu, and because much of the novel is focused on her, the reader might feel anger towards Baby. But in reality she is protecting the masses, looking after a family who has done nothing wrong so that they will not suffer because of Ammu’s carelessness. In her knowledge of India’s caste system and the effects that breaking ‘the rules’ will have, perhaps it is Ammu who is the selfish one.
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Velutha
Georgia Martin

The caste system is an issue that has great significance in this novel. It is intertwined with many of its themes and issues and it has a huge effect on the eventual outcome and Velutha’s final fate.

One example of this contained within the novel is the discrimination Velutha finds in his working life and how he is ultimately disregarded by society. Roy expresses this is in the novel with the opinion voiced by Mammachi: “if only he hadn’t been a Paravan, he might have become an engineer.” Velutha was an extremely talented craftsman, but because of his descent his career is restricted, whatever his skills.

The caste issue is overriding in the novel and Roy makes this clear with the way that Velutha is eventually discarded by the family. He is described by Roy as having a “remarkable facility with his hands” and being like a “little magician.” The family obviously admires Velutha and have compassion and respect for him, which is also shown in the way his relationship with Rahel and Estha blossoms throughout the novel, but they abandon him eventually.

This is because his status as a Paravan overrides anything that else that he may offer; they cannot risk their own standing in society by being seen in any way to be offering support to him. his ultimate breaking of the caste boundaries is one that threatens the status of the family itself.
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The English Language as a Caste/Class Issue
Clarke Heap
As well as distinct caste groupings, such as the Syrian Christians and Untouchables, there also appears to be a higher sub-caste of English-speaking Indians in the book. Early in the book it becomes apparent through the incident of Ammu’s proposition by her husband’s boss, who was English, that The God of Small Things is set in a time and place in India where being British boosts someone higher in the social hierarchy, to a point where they can demand sex from Indians.

However, it is also suggested by Roy that the very speaking of the English language in India boosts a person’s status. This is apparent when Comrade Pillai insists on talking English in conversation with Chacko to boost his perceived authority. Rahel’s and Estha’s family also insists that the two children speak English wherever possible.
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Moral Assumptions About Caste
Anita Beveridge
The way in which people low down in the caste system are perceived through the eyes of society is clearly demonstrated throughout the novel. They are perceived as being untrustworthy, dirty and having no concept of any moral values. It is also interesting to note that the opposite of this is also relevant. People higher up on the social ladder are automatically assumed to be the most trustworthy of all people and to always claim the high moral ground. This is shown through the character Mr Hollick. When Ammu goes home and explains to Mammachi and Pappachi about her husbands boss’s proposition, they don’t believe her. Pappachi “didn’t believe that an Englishman, any Englishman, would covert another man’s wife,” which sums up the universal belief that people of higher status are automatically ingrained with righteous and moral principles.

Another example where trust is placed in the hands of the wrong person is in the case of the Orangedrink-Lemondrink Man. Ammu and Baby Kochamma are both happy to leave Estha alone with this stranger, as he is part of an acceptable group in society with whom the children may associate. The Orangedrink-Lemondrink Man, however, proves to be a huge danger to Estha. In contrast to this, Velutha, who is almost a father figure to the children, is approached with great caution by characters in the book and it is made clear by Baby Kochamma that their relationship with him is frowned upon. Is evident that their judgement is severely blinkered by the false ideologies of the caste system.
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Ingrained Issues of Caste
Lizzie Gilbert
In The God of Small Things the caste system is so ingrained into the people’s psyche that even small developments are considered massive progress. For example, when Untouchables are “Allowed to touch things that touchables touched. She said that was a large step for a Paravan.” This gives the reader an insight into how rigidly the rules of Caste were adhered to. Mammachi is considered a progressive character in view of the caste issue, as she sees Velutha’s talents and is prepared to educate him, yet even she is bound tightly by tradition.

However, it is not only the higher status characters such as Mammachi and Baby Kochamma that enforce the caste system; the Paravans themselves appear to have a deep reliance and belief in it. “Vellya Paapen thought that in a Paravan” Velutha’s behaviour “could (and would, and indeed should) be treated as insolence.” It could be suggested that it is because of generations of acceptance of the system that when it is gradually being forced to move on, even in small ways, it is resisted from all levels and castes.
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